I’m on Israel’s side but banning its critics from entering the country is self-defeating
Israel's travel ban to many seems inimical to its founding values. Credit: Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia   

I am not a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Some years ago I sat in a Ramallah hotel and had the whole thing explained to me by Omar Barghouti, one of its founders. I listened respectfully, and respectfully disagreed.

Like Barghouti, I oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The illegal presence of Israeli soldiers and settlers on Palestinian land makes life intolerable for Palestinians and it eats away at the moral fabric of Israeli society itself. In 1967, Israel took over land that was not theirs. And they must return it. So I would be perfectly happy to support a BDS campaign that targeted Israeli settlements and all of their commercial activity on the West Bank.

But, as I explained in Ramallah, I am also a committed Zionist, and I believe that the state of Israel – as founded in 1948 – has a right to exist and, if a right to exist, then also a right to protect itself. As far as I am concerned Israel can have walls a hundred feet high so long as they strictly pass along the border of their country and not, as they do now, cut though the territory of others. It’s simple: I am a 1948 Zionist. And this is entirely consistent with a preparedness to campaign against an Israeli occupying presence on land taken during the Six Day War in 1967.

I do not see how the return of millions of Palestinian refugees, their children and grandchildren, which BDS campaigns for, is possible any more. The existence of the state of Israel could not possibly survive it

But the problem with BDS is that it does more than campaign against the occupation. It also campaigns for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to and reoccupy houses and land that they once owned in Israel proper; that is, in the Israel that the international community agreed upon in 1948. For those Palestinians displaced by what became Israel, this was the Nakbah, the disaster. And there is no doubt they were badly treated. Nonetheless, I do not see how the return of millions of Palestinian refugees, their children and grandchildren, is possible any more. I do not believe that a family that may now have lived in that house for three generations can be cast onto the street to make way for a family that haven’t lived there for seventy years.

The existence of the state of Israel could not possibly survive it. It would create a civil war that would rival Syria in its bloodshed and horror. The right of return often gets couched in the language of international law. But in reality it is a bloody great big bomb. And there I cannot go. In other words, I don’t support the right of return of Palestinians to Israel, just as I do not support the two thousand-year-old right of return of Jews to Samaria. This, I take it, is what most people mean when they speak of a two-state solution.

THE IDEA OF BANNING BDS SUPPORTERS FROM ISRAEL IS SO COUNTERPRODUCTIVE THAT IT ACTUALLY ACHIEVES PRECISELY THE SORT OF DE-LEGITIMISATION OF ISRAEL THAT THE ISRAELI AUTHORITIES BELIEVE THEMSELVES TO BE FIGHTING AGAINST. CREDIT: FLICKR/GOOGLE IMAGES

All of the above is a necessary preamble to what I really want to write about: the ludicrous travel ban that the Israeli government has just imposed on a number of international NGOs who support the entirely non-violent BDS campaign. For while I do not agree with BDS, the idea of banning BDS supporters from Israel is so counterproductive that it actually achieves precisely the sort of de-legitimisation of Israel that the Israeli authorities believe themselves to be fighting against. And casting them all as enemies of the state is utterly disingenuous. One of the Quaker organisations on the list won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for helping rescue Jews from Nazi Germany, for heaven’s sake.

The idea that such organisations, however misguided, are thick with anti-Semites is a total nonsense and recruits more sympathy to the BDS cause. Indeed, the people who are doing their level best to de-legitimise Israel in the eyes of the rest of the world are now sitting in the Netanyahu government.

Many Israeli progressives are looking over their shoulders, wondering if the government is trying to criminalise their every expression of sympathy for Palestinians living under this heinous occupation

The wider problem is this: it is becoming more and more difficult to be a critical friend of Israel. I was having dinner with an Israeli relative of mine this week and she expressed the worry that she was now on some sort of police watch list simply because she had donated some money to Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli military veterans who oppose the occupation. I reassured her that there was no evidence that names of people like her were being taken. But the prevailing atmosphere of anxiety is such that many Israeli progressives are looking over their shoulders, wondering if the government is trying to criminalise their every expression of sympathy for Palestinians living under this heinous occupation. And some sort of basic trust that binds a society together at the level of its basic DNA is being threatened here. Nothing good can come of it.

As we were talking, I started wondering to myself whether the prophet Jeremiah would be arrested for treason were he to turn up in modern-day Jerusalem. He warned the people of Israel of the serious consequences of moral disintegration. And nobody listened back then either.

> Writing about widespread protests through Iran, Michael Burleigh also used his most recent column to note that “enthusiasts for Israel… have been very quiet about the anti-corruption demonstrations happening in Tel Aviv every weekend against the Likud regime of Benyamin Netanyahu and an oligarch class whose more unsavoury elements are very prominent in the new BBC TV organised crime drama McMafia”. Read it here.